The paradox of originality

by Suw on March 6, 2024

Grist: Creating characters with personality

In the next Grist conversation, which will be at 19:00 GMT on Monday 11 March, we’ll talk about how to construct characters with real personalities by using frameworks such as The Big Five personality traits to Myers Briggs and even astrology (!!). Find out more, and take out a free trial to grab the webinar link if you’re not already a paid subscriber

Webinar: Dr Dean Burnett in conversation

Join us at 19:00 GMT on Tuesday 19 March for a conversation with neuroscientist-turned-author Dr Dean Burnett, whose books, including  The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, have become international bestsellers. We’ll talk about his stint as a stand-up comic, how he researches and structures his books, and we’ll get a neuroscientist’s view of writer’s block and how to overcome it. Find out more and book yourself a free ticket via Ticket Tailor

Trying to be original ensures you are not.

I’m once again drawing inspiration for today’s newsletter from Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I was particularly struck by his section on originality which was just a few pages after, and is intimately related to, the issue of second-guessing one’s thoughts that I discussed in my last newsletter.

We’re constantly bombarded with messages emphasising the need for originality in our creative work. We’re told that we need to produce something new and fresh, something that people haven’t seen before. If we’re not new, fresh, and original, then we must be derivative, formulaic and staid, which is worse than bad, it’s boring.

Johnstone says:

Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise things that are avant-garde.

This fear of being unoriginal is a very solid foundation upon which to build a mighty edifice of writer’s block. The thing is, what do we even mean by ‘unoriginal’?

A couple of years ago, I submitted an early version of Tag, my middle-aged woman becomes an action hero story, to a script development agency. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t name any magic realist TV series that feature an overtly menopausal woman wielding a sword in defence of the Earth. In fact, I can’t pin down any action adventure shows that even mention menopause. Yet I was told “the concept does not feel as fresh and original as we would hope for”.

I never was sure what they were trying to say with that comment, because every woman I’ve mentioned Tag to has been eager to read it. Middle-aged women who like this kind of stuff are not catered to, and they know it. If you loved Buffy when you were in your 20s, you’re in your late 40s or 50s now, but whilst Indiana Jones was allowed to age, Buffy remains forever a high schooler who’s never given the opportunity to grow up.

But not only is the concept of originality slippery, it’s not even true that people crave it. We still love romcoms, despite knowing that the two leads will get together at the end. We still love action adventure even though we know that the hero will win through. We know that crime TV shows will end up with the perpetrator getting their comeuppance, one way or another, but we still watch them.

The majority of fiction, particularly mass market fiction in any format, sticks fairly closely to a formula, and a lot of it is extremely obvious as soon as you step back and look at it critically. But that’s not a bad thing. Johnstone again:

The improvisor has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some original idea because they want to be thought clever.

Trying to be clever never works out well in the end. We can spot people who are trying to be clever from a mile away, and we don’t like it. Instead, what we relate to is authenticity. We want people (real or fictional) to show us who they are, to reveal their true selves bit by bit, slowly, over the course of a book or a series or a film.

We don’t care that we know the two leads will fall in love by the end of the film, we enjoy the romcom because we want to see how they do it. We know that the heroine will prevail in her action adventure, but we’re curious about how she pulls it off, and who betrays or helps her along the way. And knowing that the crime will be solved doesn’t take anything away from the experience of watching it happen.

Essential to our enjoyment is a sense of genuineness to the characters, our belief that they are behaving and talking in a way that only they could. Being true to themselves, they behave in the way that is most obvious to them.

No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting. […]

An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfil his contracts?

It’s at this point that the temptation to add some sort of refinements to the meaning of ‘unoriginal’ or ‘obvious’ arises. The desire to try to explain myself in such a way as to not contradict vast amounts of received wisdom about creativity and novelty.

But really, where success lies is in the craft. No one actually cares that they’ve seen a story told before, they care that the story they are being told now is well crafted and captivating, that the characters are realistic and authentic, that something in the tale speaks to them. After all, if originality were the most important thing about a project, we wouldn’t keep remaking Shakespeare.

Last weekend, my husband and I watched Anyone But You, which is so unashamed of being a Much Ado About Nothing remake that it actually litters the film with word-for-word quotes in the sets and scenery. OK, so it wasn’t My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV Parts I and II) or West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), or Warm Bodies (Romeo and Juliet with zombies), but it was still good and I still enjoyed it. I knew where it was going, but it was fun to see how it got there.

So if you’re scared your work isn’t original, if you find yourself feeling blocked because you think your work isn’t fresh or new, just set that worry aside and focus entirely on your craft. What will bring your work to life are beautifully drawn characters with meaningful and believable relationships who are yearning for something that’s hard to get. Be authentic. Write as only you can.

I’ll give the last word to Johnstone, who sums it up brilliantly:

Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: